The Tribune - Spectrum


, January 13, 2002
'Art and Soul

Miniatures in another vein
B.N. Goswamy

Nali Goli: Miniature by Saira Wasim, 2001
Nali Goli: Miniature by Saira Wasim, 2001

TO most people here – I mean naturally those who take any interest in these things at all –miniature painting means work of all kinds – Jaina, Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari, Deccani, for example—elegantly executed, moving, images like Mahavira’s mother dreaming her fourteen auspicious dreams, nayikas pining away on moonlit terraces, Krishna tugging at Radha’s yielding veil, Emperors on horseback out on vigorous hunts. Just across the border, in Pakistan, too, miniatures are known, even if, to most people, they mean only Mughal miniatures, the rest of the work being generally of only peripheral, and now rapidly dwindling, interest. But nearly everywhere on the subcontinent, miniatures are associated with the past, redolent of distant and unlikely times, reminders of a world that has ceased to be. And if anyone thinks of the miniatures of today, it is copies that come to mind, some made as copies or versions, others done with the intent to deceive.

But, interestingly, things are beginning to change. Apart from some early and rather hesitant attempts at incorporating, within the miniature format and technique, relatively new content, there is the very engaging work – something that one has been aware of for some time – of ‘the Twins’, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, in England (to which I hope to return in this column another time). And now comes some miniature work from Pakistan that has an interest all its own. It might have been known over there for a while, but I happened to see it only recently, when I caught up with it at the India International Centre in Delhi where it was showing under the title: "Manoeuvering Miniatures". Six artists, all of them young, all of them with some affiliation or the other to the National College of Arts, Lahore – the only place, incidentally, where one can have miniature painting as a major subject – were showing the work they had done for the lively, Delhi-based organisation, Khoj International Artists’ Workshop. When I saw it, in a large hall in the Annexe building of the Centre were hanging, along the walls, these precious-looking little works on paper, commanding attention, eliciting interest even when they were, like miniatures generally displayed in our museums, not easy to see and take in. That, because they were different, and one sensed that in them, somewhere, there was a studied attempt at saying something different.

Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001
Arts in the time of crisis
November 4, 2001
The Nizams and their jewels
October 21, 2001
Reviving a languishing craft
October 7, 2001
Buddhism in Australia
September 23, 2001
Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001
The ‘timeless’ Indian shawl
July 1, 2001
To "explore with desire"
June 17, 2001

Consider a work by Nusra Latif. On a ‘miniature-sized’ sheet, the near middle of which is occupied by a flat oval in the softest of grays, is drawn the outline of a famous Mughal work with two princely figures – a Rajput chief and the heir-apparent to the Mughal throne – seen seated in conversation. The figures and the royal appurtenances surrounding them are thinly painted, in flat colours, with the features of the figures and other details not filled in yet, as if the work were still in its last stage of preparation. A great deal is left unfinished, unstated perhaps, but there is enough here to enable one to pick up the reference to the original work at sight. However, the work has changed, for the relationship of the oval centre to the rectangular page is quite new, and creates a different kind of tension in the surface; and superimposed upon both, in any case, is drawn, flat and horizontally across the leaf, the outline of a jade-handled, Mughal dagger. Suggesting something? Placing a twist upon the original intent of the work? Perhaps. The work is titled: "Balanced Relation". Again, consider Imran Qureshi’s small work, "Lahore Resolution". Using a leaf taken from some old manuscript or text book like a palimpsest, with the impression of some writing in Urdu at the back coming through in reverse, the work consists simply of three rectangular areas framed by wide, ruled margins. In one vertical panel appears a flower garland placed against a brick-red ground; to its immediate left, against a light brown ground, is the outline of a nuclear missile; and below these two is a horizontal panel in soft green with a palpably unoccupied bed of delicately drawn leaves, taken as if from a lovers’ forest-tryst. The references to recent political events are evident, the comment wry.

Sharper perhaps, and certainly more open, are the comments that other works make, for what runs through them is a critical shift, an engagement with some of the real issues that face Pakistan (much as they do India): "fundamentalism, violence against women, corruption, and nuclear warfare". When Waseem Ahmed places a reclining nude upon a sofa, obviously lifted from Manet’s much celebrated/maligned "Olympia", but covers her lush form in a thin, gossamer burqa, right from her head and veiled eyes to her finely turned ankles, we know what he is talking about. Or painting. Or, again, when Saira Wasim shows eminently recognisable figures, including President Musharraf and other uniformed worthies, mounted upon near-mythical, wooden animals whirling around in circles, as in a carousel, while some persons of obviously different ethnic groups peer at this spectacle from the top, little is left unsaid. The work is pungent, and tightly constructed. And, given the political climate in our neighbourhood, courageous.

All this, and much other like this, makes for very interesting viewing, as I said. And some thought. The introductory essay to the show by Virginia Whiles, who curated it, also makes for interesting reading. And some thought. But many questions remain, as they should perhaps: some related to scale and format and technique, others to what miniatures historically were meant to be, still others to intimate viewing and viewer-object relationships. But of them, another time.

Sense and senselessness

This exhibition from Pakistan was meant to travel in India, and it did for a while. But, yet again, art came into focus for the wrong reasons, for a lathi-wielding, slogan-shouting, mob forced its closure in Mumbai, not long ago. Not because anyone was objecting to the art – one wonders if anyone from the crowd even saw it – but simply because it had stemmed from our unfriendly neighbourhood. And that, in the charged political atmosphere of the day, was enough reason.

So much for reason.